When Does A Culture Become A Cult?

This is a delicate subject, and there is no intention to divide. When we take on anothers’ culture, we are doing something that is not natural to us. It’s important to be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and not squeeze ourselves into either a guilt or a pleasure trip.

Culture: The customs or collective manifestations of arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation or people. The attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group.

Cult: A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object that is popular or fashionable, especially among a particular section of society.

Apart from our own way of doing things, we are influenced by the culture in which we live: this is a collective behaviour, and is neither good nor bad. It’s best illustrated in our diet, music, clothing, housing, moral behaviour…etc. We may rebel, but culture has had a great influence upon us, and we work within it.

Ritual is routine discipline to help remind us of our true nature and to sustain perseverance – or it should. Merely resting in emptiness within the ritual would be perfect practice. However, when we are so caught up in rituals and methods as being either exotic, or a thing we have to get through (‘doing the numbers’ on our mala), we can become trapped and fixated instead of flexible, relaxed and generous.

Humans are creatures of habit. We are easily addicted and can lose sight of the objective. We herd, and herds become defensive. As an example of our habits, we just have to look at History on our computer! 😉

It’s obvious that we all have the potential for cult mentality. We become a type, a class: the authors we admire, the music we listen to, the papers we read, the sports we enjoy, the kind of people to whom we are attracted. Even though the word ‘cult’ is generally used in the context of religion, we all fall into belonging to something – even if it’s a group of individuals who claim that they don’t belong to anything!

Tibetan Buddhism is mainly a culture of Vajrayana, which is, in actuality, guru yoga comprising of deity rituals that are very long – so much so that we can start a prayer in the morning and have to finish it in the evening, after work! We engage in millions of mantras and colourful visualisations.

However, the Buddha’s essential teachings are all about our true essence, which is pure, empty awareness. We can realise this directly by the shock of the “Pointing Out Instruction”.

Anything else is an elaboration to gradually remind us of this realisation. If we become caught up in the method in a mechanical way, this can in fact put us to sleep, as we are just going along for the ride, while subtly believing that we belong to an elite cult.

The culture of the Dharma – not the teachings themselves – may not be suited to another culture. Here’s why. It’s to do with various forms of laziness, manifesting from different energies and ideas within each culture. Tibetans and the old world are so relaxed that they see no urgency: they are lazy. The modern world is far too busy to practise: we are lazy. In different ways, we are all lazy.

In the modern world, we need relaxed space with no demands as we are already alert, dodging here and there. This could be said to be a form of laziness: we are too busy to actually stop and see.

If our culture is laidback and too carefree, we will not be bothered about anything: we’ll be too lazy to recognise what is needed, and we’ll then need discipline and routine.

These two are both forms of laziness, relating to a refusal to acknowledge what is actually needed.

If we become too beguiled with anothers’ culture, we may find ourselves slowing down our progress as we’ll be constantly worrying about whether we’ve done everything ‘correctly’: our behaviour becomes needy. Modern people are dynamic, but with misplaced energy.

We do need to appreciate and respect the culture of others – and they, ours. When a teacher enters the room, students can fall into the trap of bowing ‘ever so low’ and then prostrating to the teacher: unfortunately this could be motivated by pride and love of the exotic! Such display can thus become meaningless.

A clear explanation of text, and a sincere respect for such explanations is all that is necessary. This appreciation can be as deep as the practice of guru yoga itself.

May next year be a fresh start.
May the next moment be a fresh start.
May we have our feet planted lightly in the two worlds of the relative and absolute.

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